Pittsburgh Penguins Awards for the 1st Half of the 2013-14 Season
If you had to distill the 2013-14 NHL season of the Pittsburgh Penguins down into one word, it'd be perseverance. At this point it seems exhaustive to discuss the injuries that have torn the roster apart on a nightly basis, but no team in the NHL has suffered as many setbacks to their lineup.
As of December 31, the Penguins had lost 227 man-games due to injury according to ManGamesLost.com. That's 28 more games than the second-place Anaheim Ducks, and it isn't like the players that have been sitting in the press box are inconsequential grinders or easily replaceable pieces.
The blue line has been in shambles since the first game of the season, and now Evgeni Malkin hasn't played since December 14.
Pittsburgh continues to sit atop the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division though. They haven't managed a 29-12-1 record without several players elevating their games and playing some outstanding hockey.
Top Defenseman: Matt Niskanen
As if the James Neal/Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski trade wasn't already looking incredibly lopsided, the "throw in" part of the deal has emerged as a bona fide top-six defenseman for the Penguins.
Niskanen wasn't supposed to spend any time as "the man" on the blue line for Pittsburgh this year—or ever. General manager Ray Shero had signed Rob Scuderi over the summer to round out the team's top-four, and incumbent defenders Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik didn't seem ready to give any minutes away.
That group has only spent four periods out on the ice as a unit though, as injuries ravaged the group entirely. At one point, Pittsburgh was down five of its top-six, and Niskanen was leaned on heavily throughout November and December.
He responded by elevating his game to an entirely new level, playing more than 20 minutes a night while maintaining a stellar plus-minus rating. Niskanen has only finished five of 42 games with a negative rating, making him the most steady (and healthy) defender for the Penguins to this point.
Top Rookie: Olli Maatta
Olli Maatta has gone from potential candidate to be returned to juniors to Olympic hopeful and possible Calder Trophy finalist in a matter of months.
The Penguins have been forced to count on the 19-year-old more than they had originally planned, and the heavy workload seems to have gotten to the youngster as of late. With the defense finally getting healthy, it's likely that Maatta will be returned to a third-paring role, but the Fin has had quite the coming out party this year.
Not only has he been the most outstanding rookie on this team, but Maatta has been among the top first-year players in the NHL all year long. He's quietly been every bit as good as Seth Jones, and his play gives the Penguins yet another top-end defenseman that was dug out in the later part of the first round.
Top Forward: Sidney Crosby
That was suspenseful, right?
As good as Evgeni Malkin has been while healthy, Sidney Crosby has been sitting near the top of every individual stat category since the beginning of October. His 59 points is tops in the league right now, and his 22 goals is good for fourth.
What's most noteworthy about No. 87's campaign so far is that he's managed to stay off the IR. Crosby hasn't missed a game yet this year, and he's been much sturdier than he has been over the last few years. Since playing 81 games during the 2009-10 season, "the Kid" has been kept off the ice for a variety of reasons.
So far, so good for the 2013-14 season. When Crosby is confident and healthy, there really isn't a more dominating offensive player in the NHL on a nightly basis. Picking anyone else as Pittsburgh's top forward would be just for the sake of doing so.
Most Underrated: Brandon Sutter
Strength down the middle is an absolute must for teams that are vying for the Stanley Cup. So is scoring from the bottom-six. Case in point: when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, they had a third line that consisted of Tyler Kennedy, Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke.
That trio was capable of going heads-up with the opposition's top line, providing shutdown coverage most of the time while pitching in timely goals here and there.
With all three of those players out of town, Pittsburgh looked to Brandon Sutter to carve out a new identity for the third unit. While his wings have been in and out of the lineup due to injuries, the 24-year-old pivot has slowly found his game as the season has gone on.
After going goaless through his first 12 contests, Sutter finally found the back of the net on October 30 and has been a more steady producer ever since. He has eight tallies in his last 30 contests, and has been stronger as a two-way player as well.
The former first-round pick has flown largely under the radar because of his cool start, but look for him to continue to be an offensive boost down the stretch.
Most Improved: Jussi Jokinen
Jussi Jokinen came to the Penguins as a shootout specialist that had seen four consecutive seasons of declining point totals for the Carolina Hurricanes. He lit up the score sheet after joining the Penguins prior to the trade deadline, potting seven goals in 10 regular season games following the deal.
Could the eight-year veteran maintain that pace through an entire season though?
While Jokinen isn't scoring at the same torrid pace that he had been, he's been more consistent for Pittsburgh than he has been since the 2009-10 season. He scored a career-best 30 goals and 65 points that year, but has been in steady decline ever since.
At his current pace, Jokinen is set to have his best offensive year since 2009. He's been steady despite getting shuffled around a bit, and is the most improved player on the team during this campaign.
Most Valuable Player: Marc-Andre Fleury
You could easily make the case for Crosby as the team's MVP, and you wouldn't be off base. One of the biggest question marks for the Penguins coming into the 2013-14 campaign was in goal though. How would Marc-Andre Fleury respond after a total meltdown during the playoffs?
While he hasn't exactly blown the league away with his stats, he's performed his specific job perfectly. Fleury doesn't need to steal games by himself very often, but the Penguins can't have him giving contests away by allowing soft goals either.
In that regard, the 29-year-old has had a marvelous bounce-back season. No other netminder in the league has more wins, and only one other goalie has played in more games. Being a workhorse hasn't worn on Fleury one bit, and with players coming in and out of the lineup every night, he's been the steady backbone of this team all year long.
Fleury has been the one constant among a shifting veil of sweater numbers and unfamiliar names.